education evangelist: Abraham Lincoln was a Wimp

“You can not fail if you resolutely determine that you will not.”
– Abraham Lincoln

Another critical skill students need to develop is the ability to analyze and assess information.  Information is coming at us at a pace many find overwhelming.  The quantity of global information grows at an astonishing speed.  For example, in just 24 hours, 2 million blog posts are written!  In the same time frame, enough information is consumed by Internet traffic to fill 168 million DVDs.  We send 284 billion emails every day.  It feels like most of those end up in my inbox.  Eric Schmidt has said he thinks it will take us 300 years to index and make all the world’s information searchable.  You can also look at the eruption of video creation.  YouTube, which is becoming an essential tool in the classroom, adds content at a rate that is hard to grasp.  Every minute, 72 hours of video is uploaded on YouTube!  That means that no matter how hard your kids try, and mine is trying very hard,  they will never be able to watch all the videos on YouTube. 

All the data I’ve seen suggests that most of us are, quite frankly, terrible searchers.  We just have to come to grips with that.  Most of us never developed the skills required to truly utilize the information of a digital world.  If you don’t believe me, you can go do an assessment and test your search skills.  However, I can save you time.  Trust me, you are not a good searcher.  If you don’t believe me, here is a quick self evaluation you can do to determine if I’m on the right path.

First, if you type a question mark into the search bar, you are a terrible searcher.  To go further, if you type a whole sentence in the bar, you are wasting a whole bunch of time.  If your search looks like this, “What was the date of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address?” instead of, “gettysburg date” the earth is spinning rapidly and you are wasting a lot of that spin!

Second, do you know what Command F (on a Mac – I don’t do Windows) does on a webpage?  Would you believe 90% of people have no idea what this time saving, search altering capability does?  Nope, I’m not going to tell you.  Why don’t you go search, “What happens when I type Command F on my Mac when I’m on a webpage?” 

My point is, if we are bad searchers, how are we teaching students to search?  How are we teaching them to make sense of information?  How are we teaching them to vet and dig deep into all the data available to us?  We need to help students build these skills.  Again, not necessarily as a separate subject, but more in what they do every day.  How can we incorporate technology, search and analytical skills to develop new engaging and relevant learning content for our students?

I have a confession to make.  I am a history and political junkie.  It feels good to get that off my chest.  The second part of that confession is that I have turned my kids into junkies.  This is especially true of American history and how politics coats and is engrossed in all our history.

A few Sundays ago, I was partaking in one of my favorite activities.  I was on the couch reading my paper copy of the New York Times (yes, I’ve been getting the paper Sunday times for as long as I can remember.)  I was reading their endorsement of Barak Obama.  I was summarizing the text to my daughter, who was sitting next to me (she was over to watch the Giants game with me – another one of my favorite activities, which makes me worried that so many of them involve my couch).  Her reaction was interesting but probably conventional wisdom, “well, of course they endorsed Obama. It’s a left leaning paper and they will always back the Democrat.”  She was also questioning the value of the endorsement, and if it would sway voters.  What a great opportunity to take a nose dive into history!

I asked, “well, do we know if that’s true?”  Also, have they always been right?  Has their endorsement meant anything?”  And so on, and so on.   We grabbed the laptop and started researching.  It wasn’t long before we were into some interesting material.  After we did the analysis of how many Republicans and Democrats the paper supported since they began this in 1860, and how many times they were right, we branched off into some really thought-provoking information!  We got into the first endorsement the paper ever made.  The New York Times endorsed Abraham Lincoln for President in 1860.  We found the actual text of the endorsement and all of a sudden we were in a time travel machine and found ourselves in the middle of what was happening in the country in October, 1860, more than 150 years ago!

We all learned history in a very linear and stagnate way.  First President Lincoln got elected, then he led the north in the Civil War, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves, the North won the Civil War, and then he was assassinated in a theater.  When you learn it that way, it feels like one thing lead to another in
very logical way.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Easy access to technology and the web gives us this time travel capability.  The combination helps us get into what was actually occurring at the time.  So we read the endorsement and what did we discover?  That folks in 1860 were making things up as they went, just like we do.  That they had no idea what was going on or what would happen!  Theirs was a messy present and they were looking at a ambiguous future.  Slippery slope theories were in full effect!

For example, in the endorsement, the paper writes:

“…there is a large class of men who have a vague but real apprehension that something terrible is to follow the election of a Republican President.  They fear that the South will be excluded by law from the territories, that slaves will be set free in the District of Columbia, that inter-state Slave trade will be prohibited, and a great variety of legislative encroachments on Southern rights will be perpetrated.”

In other words, there seems to be all these “real” but unfounded and silly worries that things in our country were going to change.  Nonsense says the editorial board at the New York Times.  They go out of their way to put to rest these unrealistic concerns.  The paper goes on:

“…whatever may be the wishes of the Republicans on these topics, they are not likely to have any opportunity to carry them into effect.”

They further go on to describe how the Democrats control congress and they would never let any of these actions take place.  They go as far as concluding that even if the Democrats lost the Senate (fat chance), the House is so strong that it’s the Democrats who are going to run things and make all the decisions.  Wow!  Really?  Boy did they call this one wrong huh?  Not only that, we were able to tie that directly to what’s going on today.  Does it matter who controls the House?  The Senate?  Can we bring about change no matter who’s in power in Congress?  The paper continues to make it’s point:

“It will not be easy…for Mr. Lincoln to do much mischief…He seems to us much more likely to be too good natured and tolerant towards his opponents, then not enough so.  Rail-splitting is not an exciting occupation.  It does not tend to cultivate the hot and angry passions of the heart…we have not the slightest doubt, therefore, that Prof. Lincoln will disappoint utterly the sanguinary expectations (of those that want change)…”

Sound familiar?  In other words, this Lincoln dude is a wimp.  Even if he had the House and the Senate, he’s still not going to do anything!  Don’t worry, nothing is going to happen.  This guy is a rail splitter, and we all know how ”those people” are.  I think they might have missed this call.  Talk about a dis!  We imagined what the board would say if someone suggested that Lincoln would be one of our greatest and most beloved presidents in our history, one we would build monuments to.  How hard would the laughter be?  Sound familiar?

So we dove deeper.  We read more about what was going on at the time.  The paranoia in the south.  The lack of conviction in the North.  We dove into the back and forth.  We used Google earth to look at the country in 1860 and where the strongholds were.  We saw where the battles took place and how many men died in the war.  We saw how the South was set up and where we thought they made some seriously bad calculations.  We learned about how the Navy was used by the north.  We listened to a audio interpretation of the Gettysburg address, in the pace and tone Lincoln would have read it.  We spent all afternoon talking about it.  We asked critical questions like, what would have happened if the south actually listened to the Times (several states in the south panicked after the election and without southern unity, declared their independence on their own.)  We compared it to what is going on today in our nation and in our politics.  How both sides lay out a vision of what’s going to happen to our country if we pick one guy over another.  What we learned is that history is a recording of chaos that only make sense in the aftermath, when all the dust settles.

That’s the power of technology and the web.  We can jump into a time machine and visit the past.  Not only so we can understand what happened, but also so we can learn how it applies to today and our potential future.  We also learned that the New York Times, even 150 years ago, has no idea what it’s talking about. 

It looks like Abraham Lincoln didn’t turn out to be so wimpy huh?

Great thoughts on effective searching, critical thinking, and what more of us should be doing on a Sunday morning…

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